Wisconsin Assembly passes bills restricting food labeling

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Vegetarian and vegan foods sold in Wisconsin could not be labeled as meat, milk or dairy if they don’t contain those products, under bills the state Assembly passed unanimously Tuesday.

The “truth in labeling” measures are supported by the state’s agriculture and dairy industries as a way to combat what they say are misleading products that are marketed as “Impossible burgers” and use other words such as “cheese” and “milk” but don’t actually contain meat, milk or dairy. Bill supporters say they will help protect Wisconsin’s agriculture economy, educate consumers about misleading food labels and put pressure on the federal government to take action.

No one spoke against the measures before they passed unanimously on voice votes.

Opposition came from a variety of groups that promote plant-based food, such as soy and nuts, as an alternative to meat and dairy products. They argue that the bills are unnecessary, bad for Wisconsin businesses and consumers, and an unconstitutional infringement on free speech rights.

A federal judge in 2019 blocked Arkansas from enforcing a ban on using such terms as “burger” or “sausage” to sell vegetarian and vegan products because it likely violated the First Amendment’s free speech rights. There are similar lawsuits against food labeling laws in Missouri and Mississippi.

One of the Wisconsin bills passed Tuesday would ban labeling a beverage as milk unless it comes from cows, goats and other hooved mammals. Another would prohibit selling a product as cream, yogurt or cheese unless it includes dairy.

Those would only take effect if 10 states out of a group of 15 approve similar bans by 2031. The move is designed to make sure the bills don’t violate the Constitution’s commerce clause, which gives Congress — not states — the right to regulate interstate commerce.

Only two states in the group, Maryland and North Carolina, have passed milk labeling laws, but those laws haven’t taken effect because of similar provisions requiring other states to follow suit.

A third bill passed by the Assembly would ban the labeling or selling of a product as meat, bacon or a similar term unless it includes animal flesh. It would apply to packaging on products in stores and restaurant menus.

Seventeen other states have enacted some type of meat labeling law in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bills now head to the Senate, which did not take them up last session after they also passed the Assembly.